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April 30, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
No Upset

by Kevin Pelton

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at Memphis 99, San Antonio 91 (Memphis wins 3-2)
Pace: 86.1
Offensive Ratings: Memphis 119.6, San Antonio 101.8

In the end, this wasn't an upset. This wasn't a team getting hot or having a good matchup or getting lucky in a short series. The Memphis Grizzlies were the better team from start to finish, and while that difference was razor-thin at times, they ended up outscoring the San Antonio Spurs by 28 points in a series that very easily could have finished in five games. The Spurs had enough fight, and enough veteran savvy to take the lead on the road in the fourth quarter of Game Six, but down the stretch they were simply overmatched by a team playing better basketball.

One of the biggest challenges for statistical analysts is to balance larger sample sizes with more meaningful samples. Before this series, the question was how much weight to place on the way these two teams finished the regular season. After the trade deadline, San Antonio was just the league's 11th-best team, while Memphis improved all the way to eighth following the addition of Shane Battier.

Sometimes, that kind of surge proves a fluke; the Denver Nuggets were better after the deadline than anyone else in the league, and some good it did them against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In this case, however, the two-month sample told the true tale. The Spurs that built a big lead in the Western Conference over the season's first few months weren't coming back, while the Grizzlies were very much for real.

Quietly, Memphis has assembled a roster of spare parts that fits together perfectly. It's tough to say which of Zach Randolph or Tony Allen better emblemizes the kinds of reclamation projects the Grizzlies have embraced. Both have shed negative reputations on and off the court and remade themselves into valuable contributors, and in Randolph's case in anchor. They're not alone. Marc Gasol is still overshadowed by his older brother. Mike Conley's contract extension was widely derided just six months ago. Darrell Arthur dropped in the draft because of concerns about his kidneys. O.J. Mayo was all but traded to Indiana at the deadline. Sam Young was a second-round pick and the second best player from his school and class in this series. Of the eight Memphis players who saw the most action in this series, only Shane Battier was really wart-free.

As a group, the Grizzlies don't have enough shooting. In the fourth quarter of a closeout playoff game, they had a perimeter trio of Allen, Battier and Greivis Vazquez on the floor that might have been the most inept in playoff history. And yet none of that mattered, because Memphis bought into a style of play--"all heart, grit and grind," in Allen's words--that emphasized the Grizzlies' strengths and compensated for their weaknesses.

The Spurs, used to executing with robotic efficiency, never could figure out that style of play. Their success in this series, in spurts, was driven more by the individual brilliance of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili than by the system in which San Antonio has long put its faith.

Let's make sure to give credit to Lionel Hollins, the runaway winner of the mythical "Coach of the First Round" award. Hollins and his coaching staff put together a brilliant gameplan for this series. Three-point defense had been one of Memphis' biggest problems during the regular season, but Hollins recognized the Spurs' dependence on long-range shooting and tweaked his team's defensive rotations. For the series, San Antonio, which shot nearly 40 percent on threes during the regular season to lead the league, was held to 28.2 percent beyond the arc. Watch those shots and you'll see a series of contested attempts, or situations where a spot-up shooter was run off the line and forced to take a long two off the dribble.

It was up to the Grizzlies' players to execute that scheme without giving up penetration or sacrificing post defense. That was never a problem because of the quality of individual defenders on the Memphis roster. Gasol stonewalled Tim Duncan in the post, outplaying the future Hall of Famer at both ends of the floor. Allen wreaked his usual havoc defensively while splitting his time between Ginobili and Parker, with Battier ably assisting him on the wings. And Arthur's defensive versatility allowed the Grizzlies to switch pick-and-rolls without having to worry about surrendering penetration.

The toughest decision for Hollins came during the fourth quarter of Game Six, when the Spurs rallied to take the lead with 4:39 to play. With Memphis' offense stagnating, Hollins sat Allen in order to get more shooting and better decision making on offense from Mayo. The Grizzlies quickly refocused on getting the ball to Randolph in the post, and he ate Antonio McDyess alive, scoring 10 points over the next three-plus minutes to all but put the game away. For a nation that had seen little of Randolph since his ugly run with the New York Knicks, this series was an opportunity to see just how much Randolph has grown as a player since then.

Where does San Antonio go from here? Tough to say. I think it's premature to write off the Spurs' era of contention, but Duncan's play in this series was worrisome. He averaged 12.7 points per game and had a tough time getting his own shot. Duncan is no longer good enough to cover for his teammates defensively and needs more help from San Antonio's other big man than he got in this series. McDyess couldn't cover Randolph in the post, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair were repeatedly abused and Tiago Splitter could not suddenly be thrust into that role after playing just 30 minutes with Duncan in the regular season. Getting more from Splitter is the best reason to be hopeful for the Spurs in 2011-12.

The Spurs' role players on the wing came up empty as well. Richard Jefferson was benched for the second half of Game Six and shot 3-of-17 in the last four games of the series. Deprived of the open three-point looks on which they feasted all season long, Jefferson, George Hill and Gary Neal had a tough time compensating. The idea was that San Antonio's role players would be versatile enough to make a play when the defense closed out hard, but that never happened in this series.

Maybe, from the Spurs' point of view, this was in fact simply the worst possible matchup. San Antonio's dependence on the three is hardly a secret code Memphis cracked, and nobody else was able to take the three-point line away all season long. From that perspective, San Antonio only needs to attempt to incrementally upgrade, same as last season. Still, the disturbing fact is that throughout this series the Spurs looked more like the eighth seed than the team that led the Western Conference essentially from start to finish.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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